The 3 Secrets of High Performing Teams for Project Leaders

You love your people, or you want to. So why isn’t your team killing it?

We’ve all read hundreds of articles and books musing on the perfect recipes for success and achievement. So it should come as no surprise that you already possess the skills to turn any good team into a great one.

I’ve been blessed to be a part of and lead several high-performing and cross-functional teams over a 15 year career in a leadership role. We grew a successful, self-funded startup as the first bubble burst. We built a SaaS platform and then internationalized and localized it in one summer. We turned around a sinking ship and launched a global entertainment site requiring coordination with independent, international groups in one spring. The list could go on, but that’s not the point of this post.

When I reflect back on the best experiences and the most humbling, I noticed that the highest performing teams all shared 3 secrets. We weren’t always cognizant of them, but now that I’ve named them, I can’t wait to share.

Cue the music…

“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”

Communication Frequency

When we physically see each other every day, it can be easy to assume we know what’s going on in each other’s lives — to assume that what we see is what we get. When we only “see” each other virtually, we gain the benefit of knowing what we don’t know but miss the camaraderie we gain from sharing experiences in person.

Whether in person or from afar, great project leaders make the time to connect one-on-one for the personal stories and to re-evaluate expectations.

If you’re managing a project that extends into the months and years, you may discover that someone’s life will take its own course over the timeline of your project—and require a stakeholder to change their role. You’ve likely learned ways to manage such changes, so imagine the power of anticipating such a change before it happens.

Frequency, like in music, sets the pitch of your communications. Too much and your team will get annoyed and tune out. Too little, and they’ll disengage. Project kick-offs are a perfect time to set your frequencies but don’t make the mistake of going into auto-pilot. Use your one-on-ones to assess the effectiveness and adjust as needed. Remember, what may feel like too much or too little for you may feel like too little or too much for others.

Want a little inspiration on how to craft engaging, efficient, and enjoyable one-on-ones? Read Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations and don’t let the title fool you. Fierce needn’t mean challenging. It can mean passionate, honest and fun, too.

Great teams not only communicate clearly, but they dial up/down their frequency as needed to balance shifting requirements, life, and deadlines.

“Some day we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.”

Connection

So commonly, we focus on the tools and processes to making our work easier. Communication, for example, can be both a tool and a process.

However, when we shift our focus to the middle space — to the interactions and connections between ourselves, the tools and the processes — we can multiply our team’s output. Another way to think of this is our being while we’re interacting.

It’s not enough to dial in our frequency. We have to make sure we’re connected when we communicate. If we use the analogy that communication is a toolset for building a house, then connection is the foundation on top of which that house may be built. Our house, then, can only be as big, stable, inspiring, reliable and functional as our foundation allows. Connected teams can support big ideas, weather unexpected storms, and foster 10x results in a fraction of the time.

Project leaders are often tasked with the extra burden of managing people hired or influenced by managers beyond our purview. This is one of the many reasons that establishing solid connections is critical. It will help you sniff out misaligned expectations, perverse incentives, inauthentic motivators and other performance risks.

Before you go into your next, brief, one-on-one, ask yourself what you think motivates your team member. What’s their career path? How do they celebrate success? What does success even mean to them? What is standing in the way between them and what they want? Then ask them. Connecting is more than remembering names of children and spouses.

Am I suggesting you make friends with everyone? No. In none of the teams was everyone friends outside of work. Start by being curious and inviting curiosity.

If you haven’t tried Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, go create a hunch now. After 20 questions about your teammate/partner/client, you’ll gain brief and actionable insights about how you can best approach her/him to spark a real connection before moving your agenda forward. Or listen to this recent HBR podcast on conflict seekers and avoiders. Trusted Teams has also published more on this topic.

“Celebrate, celebrate, dance to the music…”

Intentional Celebration

I used to joke with clients and teams that I loved leadership because I loved to celebrate. And great teams meant great celebrations. While it was mostly true, I discovered that it was the small, incremental daily and weekly wins — not the big woohoo at the end — that got us through the project/change/year.

Yes, those bigger celebrations and time to acknowledge completion are critical. Don’t skimp on retrospectives, but know they happen too late. Even in short sprint cycles. So, practice celebrating as often as you can. Celebrate daily.

Now, I don’t suggest you celebrate for the sake of celebrating, as it will quickly lose its charm — much like too much frequency. You must be authentic and hold each other accountable for commitments and assumptions made.

For those that enjoy recipes with lots of room for your own creativity:

  • Plan your tomorrow today (it takes less than 5 minutes),
  • Share your top 3 desired outcomes as you start your day (could be during a standup or in your team chat),
  • Before you wrap up your day, share a win (it could be something you accomplished, learned or witnessed).

We know that what we focus on is more likely to manifest than what we ignore. So why not focus on and celebrate the desired outcomes and wins? It may take more time than you’re used to when planning ahead, but it will pay off quickly. If it’s not a habit yet, make it your keystone habit.

We can’t outperform our environment.

Project leaders have a powerful ability to shape the virtual environment for our teams. From removing communication barriers, providing inspiration, to watching for and mitigating potential conflict and risks along the way … we’re constantly fine-tuning our environment so our team can perform at its best.

And that’s why the 3 Secrets of High Performing Teams work. Communication frequency, connection, and intentional celebration create a nutrient-dense biosphere where people can do and be their best.

Have tips and resources you’d like to share to help others put these to practice? Share a comment or reply. You can also subscribe to my newsletter where I occasionally share my wonderlust on a variety of topics.